TOWNSEND, Vt. — Morty Fink, of Jamaica, goes to Veggie Van Go every month.
“You never know what’s going to come out of that truck,” he said, standing in line waiting for fresh produce provided at Grace Cottage Hospital via the Vermont Food Bank.
Fink can usually pick up onions, tomatoes and potatoes there.
“Every once in a while, we get yogurt,” he said. “But not all the time.”
He called the offerings “good and wholesome stuff.”
“The stuff you get in the grocery store is questionable,” he said.
Jacki Brown, marketing administrator at Grace Cottage Hospital, said her group started a relationship with the food bank in October 2015.
“Generally, we see about 60 to 70 people each month,” she said. “They, in turn, bring food home to their families.”
Still, most times, there are some leftovers. The next stop at Grace Cottage is scheduled for Oct. 26 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. All who are in need are welcome, said Brown.
“Certainly, the need is there in the community,” she said.
Grace Cottage is “very happy” to participate in the program, she said, because food insecurity is an important issue. And “good food is good medicine,” she added.
No proof of need is necessary, Brown told the Reformer as community members of all ages put produce — potatoes, onions, apples, tomatoes, lettuce and carrots — into bags and boxes.
“If you can’t afford fresh produce, this is your opportunity,” she said.
The hospital uses Veggie Van Go as a chance to promote programs it offers. Recipes also are available.
The lettuce available last Thursday was gleaned from Harlow Farm in Westminster but all the other produce was purchased from farms, according to Glenn Britton, who works in the food bank’s Brattleboro Distribution Center warehouse and drives for the group.
Chris Thayer, branch manager at the Brattleboro Distribution Center, estimated about 4,000 pounds of produce being available at the hospital on Thursday. His group continues coming through the winter.
“We don’t stop,” he said. “Little chilly in the winter. But we get it done.”
At Grace Cottage, the produce from Veggie Van Go is made available inside during the winter. But at other sites, Thayer’s crew continues the operation outside.
“We’ve made great friends with Vermont Food Bank,” said Bill Monahan, outreach coordinator at Grace Cottage.
The two groups are starting a new food pantry in Grafton. Collaboration is a good way to “get serious work done,” said Monahan.
He recently created a program called A Tons of Tomatoes, where local gardeners provide fresh produce to the Townshend Community Food Shelf. The produce is kept frozen at the food pantry.
Nicole Whalen, director of communications and public affairs at the food bank, said her group has offered produce distribution in similar formats for the last five years. Last spring saw the formal creation of the Veggie Van Go program.
“So this is relatively new and we are loving it,” Whalen said. “It’s been a really successful way for us to reach more people with fresh and healthy food, for us to reach them where they already are. For many people, access to food is challenging for a variety of reasons. One of those barriers is transportation.”
Her group had also found many of the people it was serving were struggling with diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. About 70 percent of the group’s recipients were buying “cheaper, less healthy food” because they were unable to afford better choices, according to Whalen.
The food bank has 225 food shelves and meal sites around Vermont. Not all of them can store fresh food, due to storage and abilities around refrigeration.
Veggie Van Go serves about 2,200 people each month, according to Whalen. The program has 12 different events done regularly, at six schools and eight hospitals.
Whalen said her group has seen success and has heard positive feedback at the sites.
“We want it to be celebratory, a more festive food environment,” she said, noting that there are conversations about food and health, and taste tests.
Many people fear the stigma of going to food pantries but “we’re hearing they are feeling more welcome at a Veggie Van Go event,” Whalen said.
“We would love to do many more of these,” she added. “We’re looking to increase on a sustainable basis.”
Whalen reported a 140 percent increase in her group’s fresh food distribution since 2013: 930,000 pounds of produce in 2013 to 2 million pounds in 2016. She credits Veggie Van Go with helping the food bank “ramp up” its offerings.
Last year, the group provided 12 million pounds of food altogether to people. Donations can be made and more information can be found by visiting vtfoodbank.org.
Information from: Bennington Banner, http://www.benningtonbanner.com